The Atlantic has a big story on a new deadline to revive the Opportunity rover on Mars:
Opportunity has been out of contact for months now, due to a major planet-wide dust storm that would have prevented its solar panels from picking up light to recharge. Here’s some pictures of the storm taken by Curiosity (which is powered by a radioisotope thermometric generator and so doesn’t need solar power), the storm was worse at Opportunity’s location than at Curiosity’s.
Unable to charge would have gone into a low power mode. In this mode there is a risk that the rover could get too cold, since it cannot power its heaters, but past storms have provided an insulating effect, so scientists believe it is unlikely to suffer serious damage from that. There’s also the risk excessive dust will accumulate on the solar panels (past storms have often left them cleaner by blowing off more dust than the deposit, but again, a storm this size is unprecedented).
At the time Opportunity lost contact it was measuring an atmospheric opacity of 10.8 tau (compared to a normal range of 1-2 tau). The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently measures it at 1.7 tau at Opportunity’s location, but no signals have been detected from the rover. Now NASA has announced (apparently without much input from the rover team) that if Opportunity cannot be reached within 45 days of the opacity reaching 1.5 tau (which is expected to happen within a few weeks), they will consider it lost, and will wind down the program (though they will continue passive listening a bit longer).
If this is the end of Opportunity, it will still have been a massive success, not only accomplishing its planned 90 Martian day mission, but continuing on for over 5100 more Martian days (over 14 years), providing a wealth of information, and travelling farther overland than any other off-world vehicle.
Or maybe it’s just preparing for Mars 2020: